Sixteen dog teams left Kotzebue at 12:30 this afternoon on a perfectly clear day to begin the Kobuk 440, the last mid-distance qualifier race of the season.
Along the sea-ice, an excited and jubilant crowd — ranging from elders to schoolchildren — cheered on the mass start of a field of mushers that included nine rookies and three former Kobuk champions.
Hugh Neff was in high spirits as he paced along his line, stroking each of his eager dogs. Neff has run 14 Iditarods and 18 Yukon Quests, but this race is his favorite. Though, he notes there are challenges in pacing a team for a mid-distance like the Kobuk versus a longer race.
“(It’s) a little bit more intense; you’re basically racing from the start. A lot of really fast teams, so I’m just going to hang back in the middle of the pack and not worry about trying to win the thing. Just worry about having a good run from checkpoint to checkpoint.”
Nine rookies out of sixteen teams is more than 50 percent of the field, but many of them are quite experienced and ready to have fun while still being competitive. Take, for instance, Ben Good, who has placed 13th in the Yukon Quest and won the Yukon 300 in 2018. His first Kobuk 440 is an extra special event.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday; I’m going to turn 40, so I’ll turn 40 on the Kobuk 440! So I just really want to enjoy it. I want to be as competitive as I can, but I’m going to keep the dogs really happy. I’m just out here to be competitive and have fun.”
Taking a less competitive approach is long-distance musher Ketil Reitan. The Kobuk 440 is a stop for Reitan and his son Martin as they mush their way from Nome to Kaktovik. Reitan is clad almost entirely in seal-skin as explains how he is using the same dogs that Martin just ran in the Iditarod.
“Oh, this is a little bit different; we have just come from a long camping trip. So, I think our dogs are going to settle down in traveling mood very soon, so they’ll not go as fast as the other teams.”
Last year’s reigning champion, Nic Petit, is back to compete for 2019. According to the current race standings, Petit is leading the pack into Noorvik, the first checkpoint of this year’s race.
Race officials say that the recent cold weather has made the trail quite icy and that it is looking like a “hard, fast trail” along the Northern route loop to Kobuk and back.
Image at top: Sled dog teams lined up in Kotzebue for the mass start of the 2019 Kobuk 440. Photo: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM.